Patrick Henry was a professor of religion at Swarthmore College for 17 years (1967-1984) and executive director of the Collegeville Institute for 20 (1984-2004). His latest book, Flashes of Grace: 33 Encounters with God, leads the reader through a lifetime of communion with the Divine, spurred by sources as wide-ranging as philosophy and Star Trek. Cameron Bellm recently interviewed him about finding God in all things and the lifelong process of moving from an either/or conception of God to one that embraces both/and.
Why 33 encounters? How did you land on that number?
I didn’t start out with any particular number in mind. When I’d assembled all the encounters, it simply turned out there were that many. Had there been a predetermined number, it would be 42, famously proposed in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as “the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.”
In your first chapter you speak about the importance of “unlearning” in encountering God. What advice would you give to someone who is just at the beginning of that sometimes scary unlearning process?
My advice would be to read The Taste of Silence by Bieke Vandekerckhove, which figures prominently in Encounter 30. She, stricken at age 19 with ALS, is forced to unlearn her inherited theology. In the process she learns, thanks to some Benedictine Sisters, a tradition that “is no faith of rules and merits. Neither is it a faith of dogmas that must be accepted as truths.” What she discovers is “a faith of lived experience and inwardness, preserved throughout the centuries and passed on.”
Initially very scary, to be sure, but “pushing through all possible ideas about reality to reality itself” has for her an invaluable reward. “That reality is infinitely more beautiful, intense, grand, whimsical, and mysterious than the mental images within which we mostly live it and experience it.”
There is no guarantee that the unlearning process will have a positive outcome. But when I encountered Bieke and her breakthrough, I was reminded of an aphorism of Saint Thomas Aquinas: “If it has been done, it must be possible.”
Your book takes as its subject a seemingly-simple concept, grace, and opens it up like an accordion to examine and appreciate all of its many dimensions. Was there any aspect of grace that was utterly surprising to you?
I have to sidle up to this question rather than meet it head-on. A feature of many encounters with grace is that it’s hard to remember what it was like “before.” Once the surprise settles in, it becomes a new normal. For instance, as I say about my feminist conversion experiences, I can hardly believe I didn’t “get it” earlier.
The most fundamental surprise, one that I now realize is a feature of several of the encounters, is this: Giving up control is the precondition for freedom. I say early in the book, “As a white, well-educated, middle-class, Protestant, American male, coming of age in the can-do Texas of the Eisenhower 1950s, I was programmed to take charge, set agendas, explain the world, and know what was best for everybody. I was overloaded with entitlements.” At the time, I thought I was supremely free because I called the shots.
Turns out that was human bondage. And what I learned through my career and through psychotherapy has prepared me to understand the supreme challenge of today, put forcefully by Bryan Massingale in his book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church: “Many white Americans are ensnared, entangled, and enmeshed—malformed, conformed, and deformed—by a value-laden web of racial significance and meaning that is largely invisible and outside of their conscious awareness.” I’ve broken free of much, but am still “ensnared, entangled, and enmeshed.” Even as I near age 82, there are still lots of surprising and discombobulating encounters with God’s grace waiting for me. I’m pretty sure they will be liberating as well.
Giving up control is the precondition for freedom.
In chapter 30 you discuss the overlap between “spiritual” and “religious” and offer us the striking image of finding “a spirituality for the long haul through the little back door of religion.” Can you tell us a bit more about how we can find that little back door?
Once again I point to Bieke Vandekerckhove, who gave me the “little back door” image. I second her motion: Go to the monastics—who, whatever else they may be, are denizens of institutional religion—to discover a traditional yet revolutionary “school for the Lord’s service” that is governed by what Saint Benedict called “a little Rule for beginners.”
I’ll take the opportunity to announce a book I wrote that will be published by Liturgical Press in September: Benedictine Options: Learning to Live from the Sons and Daughters of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. In it I say a good deal about what the Sisters and monks teach me about a spirituality for the long haul. They’ve been at it for a millennium and a half, and have learned a thing or two.
When people ask a monk friend of mine where he looks for God, he has a disconcerting response. They assume he must have regular access to God’s immediate presence. They expect some esoteric answer that they can ponder and marvel at for a while. Their faces fall when he says, simply, “I go to church.”
Your writing is marked by a joyful sense of wonder and curiosity and also a deep respect for traditions other than your own. During your 20 years as the executive director of the Collegeville Institute, were there encounters with others that were particularly enriching for your own conceptions of and interactions with God?
Hundreds. I’ll pick three, each from a different dimension of the Collegeville Institute’s work.
First. In a seminar a resident scholar presented her project. It followed a classical theological outline. We saw her heart wasn’t in it, and she replied: “But I have to write this way to make my mark in the discipline.” The other resident scholars and I, picking up a hint from a mention of her love of music, suggested she recast the material in musical metaphors. Three days later she came to my office and said, “Patrick, that seminar exorcised my academic demons.”
I instantly sensed the power of this. She didn’t just have to “change her mind.” There were demons implanted by her academic formation that wouldn’t simply depart. They had to be exorcised. From that time on, I prescribed this rule for the seminars: You are to tell us not what you’ve found out, but where you’re stuck. The rest of us don’t know your specialty, but we’ve all been stumped, and maybe we can help loosen the wedge.
We think we encounter God when we’ve got it all figured out. Maybe sometimes. More often, though—for me, at least—it happens when I and those around me admit that we’re baffled.
Second. When I moved from being a professor to the position of executive director of the Collegeville Institute and became responsible to a board of directors, I suddenly found myself dealing with sorts of people I hadn’t had much contact with, especially businesspeople (who are a major diversity category for PhDs).
As Elizabeth Villafana, a board member, said to me about the recently deceased H. C. (Bob) Piper, CEO of Piper Jaffray and chair of the Collegeville Institute’s board, who was notable for not holding grudges: “He knew what every good business person knows: you never burn your bridges behind you, because you never know when you might have to cross over them again.” Professors, cloistered by tenure, can burn bridges at will.
To my surprise (and my lasting gratitude), I learned from businesspeople an openness to others, to inclusiveness—to a richness that the God who created a world of astounding variety certainly favors, and that professors profess but can often evade by their insulation from the uncertainty that is daily fare for most other people.
I learned from businesspeople an openness to others, to inclusiveness—to a richness that the God who created a world of astounding variety certainly favors.
Third. The Collegeville Institute hosted nearly a hundred meetings that we called summer consultations. Among these was one in 1999 and 2000 that gathered American Indians, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims to talk about “Living Faithfully in the United States Today.”
Each day a particular faith group held a service and invited the others to attend. When the Hindus were going to do their puja (devotional worship), a Muslim, whose story goes back to the violent partition of the subcontinent into Pakistan and India, asked them if he could start their service by chanting one of the Vedas, their holy scripture, in Sanskrit. Animosity between religious communities as bitter as any the world has known—periodic news reports remind us that Hindu-Muslim relations can still be murderous—was overcome in that moment, on both sides: his offer, and their acceptance of it.
My response was immediate and unequivocal: If this has been done, then anything is possible. It was an encounter with God’s grace that catapulted me out of Christian confines—or rather, that vastly expanded my Christian conviction that the whole world is in God’s hands.
What is your greatest hope for readers of this book?
Well, honesty requires me to start with what every author would say: I hope readers like it. I recall the instruction in junior high: “It won’t do to say in your report simply ‘I really liked this book and will recommend it to all my friends.’” When I became an author, I realized that the forbidden sentence is the only review that matters—though it can be even better: “… and will buy it for all my friends.”
Kidding aside (though the previous sentence isn’t kidding), I want readers to come away from this book with loosened spiritual joints. I want to persuade them that they gain freedom, they don’t lose it, when they jettison control. I like to imagine the book triggering the kinds of memories that ricochet and syncopate, that encourage, challenge, and reassure readers to do this same kind of reflecting—and that they find such pondering, as I do, exhilarating, a bit scary, and quite irresistible.
A bonus: I expect some appreciative thoughts will be directed my way by those who, previously unfamiliar with Captain Picard, are prompted to immerse themselves in Star Trek: The Next Generation.